By Terri Akman
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — When putting their mansion on the market in August, musicians Robert Prester and Adriana Samargia decided to think outside the box. COVID-19 was making house tours tricky, so they got creative and produced a YouTube video tour. So far, it’s gotten more than 19,000 views.
“COVID made us a little uneasy about having a bunch of open houses, and it’s a big house — over 6,000 square feet — and we wanted a way other than pictures for people to feel like they’ve seen the home,” said Samargia, a professional vocalist.
They created a roughly 10-minute video tour of the house, located in the West Mount Airy neighborhood, accompanied by Samargia’s sometimes-talking, sometimes-singing and sometimes-scatting vocals. Prester, a professional concert pianist, matched rooms to musical themes, including baroque and jazz.
“We pieced the video very haphazardly together,” Samargia recalled. “Neither one of us are good videographers, and it’s all done on an iPhone and not very well. But there’s a lot of humor in it. We wanted to depict that it’s a fun house to own and that might attract people to wanting to live in it.”
Homeowners today are finding creative ways to market their houses, and some are challenging established practices. For example, most Realtors advise clients to get rid of all personal pictures because people want to imagine themselves in the home, not the seller’s family.
“I say leave them because you’re a happy family, and the pictures show it’s a loving home,” said Rachel Rothbard, Realtor at Coldwell Banker in Philadelphia’s Center City. “People want to see that. It gets potential buyers excited that they can have that, too.”
One of her clients, Josh Akman — who happens to be this writer’s son — took the personal touch a step further. When he and his wife, Lauren, put their Queen Village townhouse on the market in September, they wrote a personal letter to prospective buyers.
“We wanted to put a little personality behind the house,” he said. “I mentioned that we experienced so many milestones in the house, saying: ‘We hope this home brings as much joy and excitement for you as it has for us. In the five years we’ve lived here, we’ve gotten engaged, married, and had our daughter (and pup).’”
For Josh, the letter was equal parts sentimentality and practicality. The townhouse is part of a condo, so the neighbors need to make joint decisions and share expenses for such things as the roof and outdoor maintenance.
“Buyers look at so many houses that they can easily get confused. We wanted to make this house different and make an emotional connection,” he said.
The letter had its intended effect, said Morgan Doyle and Doug Gordon, the couple who bought it. They were moving from a one-bedroom home in the Rittenhouse area and needed more space, and this house had three bedrooms.
“Given that we’re in an urban area, it helped create the sense that we will have that neighborhood feel with neighbors who had been thought of highly in the past,” Gordon said.
Said Doyle: “We were just recently engaged, and it was nice to see they had all these life experiences here that we were about to go through.
“It helped us picture ourselves here. We loved the place — the size of it and characteristics, but having that extra confidence encouraged us to make the offer a few hours after seeing the place.”
Rothbard, a Realtor for 14 years, had never had a seller write a letter before, but now she’s on board.
“It’s wonderful marketing coming directly from the seller,” she said.
“The letter helps sell to the buyers and also to the buyer’s agent.”
Kristen Foote, a Realtor with Compass in Center City, disagreed.
Her first instruction to sellers continues to be: Clear out anything personal, including family photos, diplomas, announcements, awards and anything that offers personal information.
She also finds that pictures can create unnecessary clutter.
You’re going for a look that’s as neat and clean as possible, she said, so buyers can concentrate on the home, not its contents.
“With social media, buyers might end up doing research on the person who is living there,” she said. “They should be looking at the home, not the pictures or people in the home. We help our clients with staging their home, decluttering, cleaning, landscaping to help the home shine when we go to market.”
The key to helping clients envision themselves living in the home is to figure out the target buyer and market accordingly, she said. For example, one of her clients turned a room into a nursery to help a likely buyer envision that setup. To get a sense of the neighborhood and neighbors, she encourages clients to walk around at different times to see who is out and about.
Both Foote and Rothbard encourage buyers to submit personal letters along with their bid.
“In a competitive situation, I always have my buyers write a letter, sometimes including a picture, because it helps separate that offer from other offers,” Rothbard said.
Although that strategy may not work when a bid is the only offer because it could diminish leverage in the negotiation if the buyer seems too eager.
Foote thinks a buyer’s letter has little downside even if it is the only bid.
“The personal stories speak to the sellers about who is moving into their property,” she said. The letter should introduce who they are, why they are moving, and why they love the house.
“Selling real estate can be emotional, especially if someone’s been in a house for 40 or 50 years.”
There’s no data indicating whether these strategies are making a difference. As of now, Prester and Samargia’s home hasn’t sold. But, Samargia reasoned, “It’s nice to have people follow our music.”